Whether it’s chronic, acute or episodic, low back pain is a common problem among adults, causing more disability around the world than any other condition. Fortunately, there are a variety of stretches and exercises that can be done at home to relieve lower back pain and improve mobility.
How common is lower back pain?
At least one-fourth of U.S. adults report having low back pain in the last three months, national survey data shows. And research suggests that as many as 80 percent of adults will experience low back pain at some point in their lives, meaning if you haven’t had it yet and you don’t have it now, there’s a good chance that you will in the future — especially since back pain becomes more frequent with advancing age.
Common causes of lower back pain include overuse injuries (from doing the same form of exercise over and over), muscle or ligament strains or sprains, trauma (from falling down, for example), degenerative discs, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, experts say. Another prime culprit: sedentary behavior. A 2019 study in the journal Applied Ergonomics found an association between static sitting behavior and chronic low back pain among people who worked at a call center.
Lower back pain is “usually due to a combination of deconditioning and poor body mechanics,” explains Robert Gillanders, a physical therapist in the Charlottesville, Virginia, area. What’s more, a history of back pain likely means there’s more to come. “If you’ve had an injury in the past, you’re probably going to get it again,” he adds.
How do you relieve back pain?
When lower back pain strikes, you don’t need to take it lying down. On the contrary, you should keep moving by walking regularly. “Walking is one of the most therapeutic things you can do for your back,” Gillanders says. “Yet it’s low hanging fruit that’s not used that often.” Studies have found that walking improves pain levels, disability, quality of life and fear avoidance among people with chronic low back pain.
To relieve low back pain — whether short-term or chronic — you can apply an ice pack or heat (whichever you’d prefer) and use a foam roller to release tension in the lower back, Gillanders recommends. It can also help to engage in diaphragmatic breathing, says Alex Garreau, a physical therapist at Northwestern University Hospital in Chicago. As you inhale slowly, let your belly expand with air, then exhale slowly, allowing your belly to deflate. “This slows down your breathing, which can slow down pain signals and have a calming effect,” Garreau explains.
Some red flags with lower back pain: If the pain radiates down one of your legs; if you have numbness, weakness or tingling in one (or both) of your legs; or if you experience changes in your bowel or bladder function, call your doctor right away, advises Stacey Cladis, a physical therapist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, because these symptoms could be caused by compression in the spinal cord or nerve compression. Also, if the pain persists for more than a week or is preventing you from doing the activities you need to do, it’s a good idea to see a doctor.
6 exercises to help with back pain
A word of warning: As you do these exercises, be sure to listen to your body and heed its messages. “If something is hurting, don’t do it,” Cladis says. “You can aggravate your symptoms if you’re trying to push through the pain.”
If doing these exercises and stretches on the floor is too difficult, you can try completing them on a bed.
1. Supine Bridge
Lie on your back with your arms on the floor at your sides, your legs bent at the knees and your feet flat on the floor. Tighten your abdomen and glutes and slowly lift your hips off the floor while keeping your back straight. Then, slowly lower your butt and hips back down to the floor. Do 10 repetitions.
Modifications: Put a bolster or pillow in the crevice behind your knees. Instead of pushing up with from your feet, push up from the back of your knees. This reduces the range of motion and make it a bit less strenuous, said Garreau.
2. Bird Dog
Get down on all fours, with your hands on the floor directly under both shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Keep your head in line with your spine and lift your right arm forward and your left leg straight behind you until they are both parallel to the floor. Pause, then return to the starting position. Repeat with the left arm and the right leg. Be sure to keep your abdominal muscles tight, your back flat and your hips level throughout the exercise. Do 10 repetitions on each side.
Modifications: Lean forward over a bed with your feet on the ground and hands on the bed instead of having both on the floor.